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Should Portfolios Replace Placement Tests?

It’s what you’ve done, not how you scored.

How do we know if a student is ready for high school algebra—or college-level English or math? Most K-12 schools and universities rely on placement tests, high-stakes standardized exams, to decide. And, if you don’t do well on that single test, you’re out of luck.


At the college level, one third of students—even those who earned A’s and B’s in high school—have to take remedial courses that don’t count toward their degrees because they didn’t score well on a placement test. But are all those students really that far behind or is there a misalignment between the work they can actually do and what the test questions ask?

The love affair with the single high-stakes exam is cooling. Many educators are looking to take a more holistic approach to figuring out what students really know and can do. That often means using portfolios, a purposeful collection of a student’s best work, to assess the way students demonstrate proficiency in a subject.

Inspired by visual and performing arts traditions, education portfolios have long been common in the classrooms of effective educators. Great teachers know that students see tests as something that’s done to them, but with portfolios, students get to reflect upon the work they’ve produced and choose which items—tests, quizzes, research papers, essays, or projects—to include. The process of editing their work to showcase the pieces they believe reflect the depth and breadth of their capacity is more empowering for students than a single number. And, students can include documentation of extracurricular activities, independent interests, and work experiences.

Modern portfolios aren’t just manila file folders overflowing with assignments. Thanks to technology, portfolios can also be digitized. With electronic portfolios, students can upload photographs of projects and PDFs of papers to websites specifically for this purpose. They can even hyperlink their work to academic standards and explain why their work meets them.

Creativity, critical thinking, and project-based learning are essential components of a 21st century education, and portfolios can reflect all of these things—something no test score can quite do.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user kate*

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